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Opticks and a Treatise on the PRISM Surveillance Program (Guest Blog)

By Mark Rasch and Sophia Hannah

Last post, we wrote about the NSA‟s secret program to obtain and then analyze the telephone metadata relating to foreign espionage and terrorism by obtaining the telephone metadata relating to everyone. In this post, we will discuss a darker, but somewhat less troubling program called PRISM. As described in public media as leaked PowerPoint slides, PRISM and its progeny is a program to permit the NSA, with approval of the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to obtain “direct access” to the servers of internet companies (e.g., AOL, Google, Microsoft, Skype, and Dropbox) to search for information related to foreign terrorism – or more accurately, terrorism and espionage by “non US persons.”

Whether you believe that PRISM is a wonderful program narrowly designed to protect Americans from terrorist attacks or a massive government conspiracy to gather intimate information to thwart Americans political views, or even a conspiracy to run a false-flag operation to start a space war against alien invaders, what the program actually is, and how it is regulated, depends on how the program operates. When Sir Isaac Newton published his work Opticks in 1704, he described how a PRISM could be used to – well, shed some light on the nature of electromagnetic radiation. Whether you believe that the Booz Allen leaker was a hero, or whether you believe that he should be given the full Theon Greyjoy for treason, there is little doubt that he has sparked a necessary conversation about the nature of privacy and data mining. President Obama is right when he says that, to achieve the proper balance we need to have a conversation. To have a conversation, we have to have some knowledge of the programs we are discussing.

Different Data

Unlike the telephony metadata, the PRISM programs involve a different character of information, obtained in a potentially different manner. As reported, the PRISM programs involve not only metadata (header, source, location, destination, etc.) but also content information (e-mails, chats, messages, stored files, photographs, videos, audio recordings, and even interception of voice and video Skype calls.)

Courts (including the FISA Court) treat content information differently from “header”information. For example, when the government investigated the ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, they reportedly used the U.S. Postal Service‟s Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) system which photographs the outside of every letter or parcel sent through the mails – metadata. When Congress passed the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which among other things established procedures for law enforcement agencies to get access to both “traffic” (non-content) and content information, the FBI took the posistion that it could, without a wiretap order, engage in what it called “Post-cut-through dialed digit extraction” -- that is, when you call your bank and it prompts you to enter your bank account number and password, the FBI wanted to “extract” that information (Office of Information Retrival) as “traffic” not “content.” So the lines between “content” and “non-content”may be blurry. Moreover, with enough context, we can infer content. As Justice Sotomeyor observed in the 2012 GPS privacy case:

… it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. E.g., Smith, 442 U.S., at 742, 99 S.Ct. 2577; United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 443, 96 S.Ct. 1619, 48 L.Ed.2d 71 (1976). This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks. People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers; and the books, groceries, and medications they purchase to online retailers.

But the PRISM program is clearly designed to focus on content. Thus, parts of the Supreme Court‟s holding in Smith v. Maryland that people have no expectation of privacy in the numbers called, etc. therefore does not apply to the PRISM-type information. Right?

Again, not so fast.

Expecting Privacy

Simple question. Do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of your e-mail?

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: No.

Better answer: Vis a vis whom, and for what purposes. You see, privacy is not black and white. It is multispectral – you know, like light through a triangular piece of glass.

When the government was conducting a criminal investigation of the manufacturer of Enzyte (smiling Bob and his gigantic – um – putter) they subpoenaed his e-mails from, among others, Yahoo! The key word here is subpoenanot search warrant. Now that‟s the thing about data and databases -- if information exists it can be subpoenaed. In fact, a Florida man has now demanded production of cell location data from – you guessed it – the NSA.

But content information is different from other information. And cloud information is different. The telephone records are the records of the phone company about how you used their service. The contents of emails and documents stored in the cloud are your records of which the provider has incidental custody. It would be like the government subpoenaing your landlord for the contents of your apartment (they could, of course subpoena you for this, but then you would know), or subpoenaing the U-stor-it for the contents of your storage locker (sparking a real storage war). They could, with probable cause and a warrant, seach the locker (if you have a warrant, I guess you‟re cooing to come in), but a subpoena to a third party is dicey.

So the Enzyte guy had his records subpoenaed. This was done pursuant to the stored communications act which permits it. The government argued that they didn‟t need a search warrant to read Enzyte guy‟s email, because – you guessed it – he had no expectation of privacy in the contents of his mail. Hell, he stored it unencrypted with a thjird party. Remember Smith v. Maryland? The phone company case? You trust a third party with your records, you risk exposure. Or as Senator Blutarsky (I. NH?) might opine, “you ()*^#)( up, you trusted us…”(actually Otter said that, with apologies to Animal House fans.)

Besides, cloud provider contracts, and email and internet provider privacy policies frequently limit privacy rights of users. In the Enzyte case, the government argued that terms of service that permitted scanning of the contents of email for viruses or spam (or in the case of Gmail or others, embedding context based ads) meant that the user of the email service “consented” to have his or her mail read, and therefore had no privacy rights in the content. (“Yahoo! reserves the right in their sole discretion to pre-screen, refuse, or move any Content that is available via the Service.”) Terms of service which provided that the ISP would respond to lawful subpoenas made them a “joint custodian” of your email and other records (like your roommate) who could consent to the production of your communications or files. Those policies that your employer has that says, “employees have no expectation of privacy in their emails or files"? While you thought that meant that your boss (and the IT guy) can read your emails, the FBI or NSA may take the position that “no expectation of privacy” means exactly that.

Fortunately, most courts don’t go so far. In general, courts have held that the contents of communications and information stored privately online (not on publicly accessible Facebook or Twitter feeds) are entitled to legal protection even if they are in the hands of potentially untrustworthy third parties. But this is by no means assured.

But clearly the data in the PRISM case is more sensitive and entitled to a greater level of legal protection than that in the telephony metadata case. That doesn‟t mean that the government, with a court order, can't search or obtain it. It means that companies like Google and Facebook probably can't just “give it” to the government. I''s not their data.

The PRISM Problem

So the NSA wants to have access to information in a massive database. They may want to read the contents of an email, a file stored on Dropbox, whatever. They may want to track a credit card through the credit card clearing process, or a banking transaction through the interbank funds transfer network. They may want to track travel records – planes, trains or automobiles. All of this information is contained in massive databases or storage facilities held by third parties – usually commercial entities. Banks. VISA/MasterCard. Airlines. Google.

The information can be tremendously useful. The NSA may have lawful authority (a Court order) to obtain it. But there is a practical problem. How does the NSA quickly and efficiently seek and obtain this information from a variety of sources without tipping those sources off about the individual searches it is conducting – information which itself is classified? That appears to be the problem attempted to be solved by PRISM programs.

In the telephony program, the NSA “solved” the problem by simply taking custody of the database.

In PRISM, they apparently did not. And that is a good thing. The databases remain the custody of those who created them.

Here‟s where it gets dicey – factually.

The reports about PRISM indicate that the NSA had “direct access” to the servers of all of these Internet companies. Reports have been circulating that the NSA had similar “direct access” to financial and credit card databases as well. The Internet companies have all issued emphatic denials. So what gives?

Speculation time. The NSA and Internet companies could be outright lying. David Drummond, Google‟s Chief Legal Officer aint going to jail for this. Second, they could be reinterpreting the term “direct” access. When General Alexander testified under oath that the NSA did not “collect any type of data on millions of Americans” he took the term “collect” to mean “read” rather than “obtain.”

Most likely, however, is that the NSA PRISM program is a protocol for the NSA, with FISC approval, to task the computers at these Internet companies to perform a search. This tasking is most likely indirect. How it works is, at this point, rank speculation. What is likely is that an NSA analyst, say in Honolulu, wants to get the communications (postings, YouTube videos, stored communications, whatever) of Abu Nazir, a non-US person, which are stored on a server in the U.S., or stored on a server in the Cloud operated by a US company. The analyst gets “approval” for the “search,” by which I mean that a flock of lawyers from the NSA, FBI and DOJ descend (what is the plural of lawyers? [ a "plague"? --spaf] ) and review the request to ensure that it asks for info about a non US person, that it meets the other FISA requirements, that there is minimization, etc. Then the request is transmitted to the FISC for a warrant. Maybe. Or maybe the FISC has approved the searches in bulk (raising the Writ of Assistance issue we described in the previous post.) We don‟t know. But assuming that the FISC approves the “search,” the request has to be transmitted to, say Google, for their lawyers to review, and then the data transmitted back to the NSA. To the analyst in Honolulu, it may look like “direct access.” I type in a search, and voilia! Results show up on the screen. It is this process that appears to be within the purview of PRISM. It may be a protocol for effectuating court-approved access to information in a database, not direct access to the database.

Or maybe not. Maybe it is a direct pipe into the servers, which the NSA can task, and for which the NSA can simply suck out the entire database and perform their own data analytics. Doubtful, but who knows? That‟s the problem with rank speculation. Aliens, anyone?

But are basing this analysis on what we believe is reasonable to assume.

So, is it legal? Situation murky. Ask again later.

If the FISC approves the search, with a warrant, within the scope of the NSA‟s authority, on a non-US person, with minimization, then it is legal in the U.S., while probably violating the hell out of most EU and other data privacy laws. But that is the nature of the FISA law and the USA PATRIOT Act which amended it. Like the PowerPoint slides said, most internet traffic travels through the U.S., which means we have the ability (and under USA PATRIOT, the authority) to search it.

While the PRISM programs are targeted at much more sensitive content information, if conducted as described above, they actually present fewer domestic legal issues than the telephony metadata case. If they are a dragnet, or if the NSA is actually conducting data mining on these databases to identify potential targets, then there is a bigger issue.

The government has indicated that they may release an unclassified version of at least one FISC opinion related to this subject. That‟s a good thing. Other redacted legal opinions should also be released so we can have the debate President Obama has called for. And let some light pass through this PRISM.

Mark Rasch, is the former head of the United States Department of Justice Computer Crime Unit, where he helped develop the department’s guidelines for computer crimes related to investigations, forensics and evidence gathering. Mr. Rasch is currently a principal with Rasch Technology and Cyberlaw and specializes in computer security and privacy.

Sophia Hannah has a BS degree in Physics with a minor in Computer Science and has worked in scientific research, information technology, and as a computer programmer. She currently manages projects with Rasch Technology and Cyberlaw and researches a variety of topics in cyberlaw.

Rasch Cyberlaw (301) 547-6925

Some thoughts on “cybersecurity” professionalization and education

[I was recently asked for some thoughts on the issues of professionalization and education of people working in cyber security. I realize I have been asked this many times, I and I keep repeating my answers, to various levels of specificity. So, here is an attempt to capture some of my thoughts so I can redirect future queries here.]

There are several issues relating to the area of personnel in this field that make issues of education and professional definition more complex and difficult to define. The field has changing requirements and increasing needs (largely because industry and government ignored the warnings some of us were sounding many years ago, but that is another story, oft told -- and ignored).

When I talk about educational and personnel needs, I discuss it metaphorically, using two dimensions. Along one axis is the continuum (with an arbitrary directionality) of science, engineering, and technology. Science is the study of fundamental properties and investigation of what is possible -- and the bounds on that possibility. Engineering is the study of design and building new artifacts under constraints. Technology is the study of how to choose from existing artifacts and employ them effectively to solve problems.


The second axis is the range of pure practice to abstraction. This axis is less linear than the other (which is not exactly linear, either), and I don't yet have a good scale for it. However, conceptually I relate it to applying levels of abstraction and anticipation. At its "practice" end are those who actually put in the settings and read the logs of currently-existing artifacts; they do almost no hypothesizing. Moving the other direction we see increasing interaction with abstract thought, people and systems, including operations, law enforcement, management, economics, politics, and eventually, pure theory. At one end, it is "hands-on" with the technology, and at the other is pure interaction with people and abstractions, and perhaps no contact with the technology.

There are also levels of mastery involved for different tasks, such as articulated in Bloom's Taxonomy of learning. Adding that in would provide more complexity than can fit in this blog entry (which is already too long).

The means of acquisition of necessary expertise varies for any position within this field. Many technicians can be effective with simple training, sometimes with at most on-the-job experience. They usually need little or no background beyond everyday practice. Those at the extremes of abstract thought in theory or policy need considerably more background, of the form we generally associate with higher education (although that is not strictly required), often with advanced degrees. And, of course, throughout, people need some innate abilities and motivation for the role they seek; Not everyone has ability, innate or developed, for each task area.

We have need of the full spectrum of these different forms of expertise, with government and industry currently putting an emphasis on the extremes of the quadrant involving technology/practice -- they have problems, now, and want people to populate the "digital ramparts" to defend them. This emphasis applies to those who operate the IDS and firewalls, but also to those who find ways to exploit existing systems (that is an area I believe has been overemphasized by government. Cf. my old blog post and a recent post by Gary McGraw). Many, if not most, of these people can acquire needed skills via training -- such as are acquired on the job, in 1-10 day "minicourses" provided by commercial organizations, and vocational education (e.g, some secondary ed, 2-year degree programs). These kinds of roles are easily designated with testing and course completion certificates.

Note carefully that there is no value statement being made here -- deeply technical roles are fundamental to civilization as we know it. The plumbers, electricians, EMTs, police, mechanics, clerks, and so on are key to our quality of life. The programs that prepare people for those careers are vital, too.

Of course, there are also careers that are directly located in many other places in the abstract plane illustrated above: scientists, software engineers, managers, policy makers, and even bow tie-wearing professors. grin

One problem comes about when we try to impose sharply-defined categories on all of this, and say that person X has sufficient mastery of the category to perform tasks A, B, and C that are perceived as part of that category. However, those categories are necessarily shifting, not well-defined, and new needs are constantly arising. For instance, we have someone well trained in selecting and operating firewalls and IDS, but suddenly she is confronted with the need to investigate a possible act of nation-state espionage, determine what was done, and how it happened. Or, she is asked to set corporate policy for use of BYOD without knowledge of all the various job functions and people involved. Further deployment of mobile and embedded computing will add further shifts. The skills to do most of these tasks are not easily designated, although a combination of certificates and experience may be useful.

Too many (current) educational programs stress only the technology -- and many others include significant technology training components because of pressure by outside entities -- rather than a full spectrum of education and skills. We have a real shortage of people who have any significant insight into the scope of application of policy, management, law, economics, psychology and the like to cybersecurity, although arguably, those are some of the problems most obvious to those who have the long view. (BTW, that is why CERIAS was founded 15 years ago including faculty in nearly 20 academic departments: "cybersecurity" is not solely a technology issue; this has more recently been recognized by several other universities that are now also treating it holistically.) These other skill areas often require deeper education and repetition of exercises involving abstract thought. It seems that not as many people are naturally capable of mastering these skills. The primary means we use to designate mastery is through postsecondary degrees, although their exact meaning does vary based on the granting institution.

So, consider some the bottom line questions of "professionalization" -- what is, exactly, the profession? What purposes does it serve to delineate one or more niche areas, especially in a domain of knowledge and practice that changes so rapidly? Who should define those areas? Do we require some certification to practice in the field? Given the above, I would contend that too many people have too narrow a view of the domain, and they are seeking some way of ensuring competence only for their narrow application needs. There is therefore a risk that imposing "professional certifications" on this field would both serve to further skew the perception of what is involved, and discourage development of some needed expertise. Defining narrow paths or skill sets for "the profession" might well do the same. Furthermore, much of the body of knowledge is heuristics and "best practice" that has little basis in sound science and engineering. Calling someone in the 1600s a "medical professional" because he knew how to let blood, apply leeches, and hack off limbs with a carpenter's saw using assistants to hold down the unanesthitized patient creates a certain cognitive dissonance; today, calling someone a "cyber security professional" based on knowledge of how to configure Windows, deploy a firewall, and install anti-virus programs should probably be viewed as a similar oddity. We need to evolve to where the deployed base isn't so flawed, and we have some knowledge of what security really is -- evolve from the equivalent of "sawbones" to infectious disease specialists.

We have already seen some of this unfortunate side-effect with the DOD requirements for certifications. Now DOD is about to revisit the requirements, because they have found that many people with certifications don't have the skills they (DOD) think they want. Arguably, people who enter careers and seek (and receive) certification are professionals, at least in a current sense of that word. It is not their fault that the employers don't understand the profession and the nature of the field. Also notable are cases of people with extensive experience and education, who exceed the real needs, but are not eligible for employment because they have not paid for the courses and exams serving as gateways for particular certificates -- and cash cows for their issuing organizations. There are many disconnects in all of this. We also saw skew develop in the academic CAE program.

Here is a short parable that also has implications for this topic.

In the early 1900s, officials with the Bell company (telephones) were very concerned. They told officials and the public that there was a looming personnel crisis. They predicted that, at the then-current rate of growth, by the end of the century everyone in the country would need to be a telephone operator or telephone installer. Clearly, this was impossible.

Fast forward to recent times. Those early predictions were correct. Everyone was an installer -- each could buy a phone at the corner store, and plug it into a jack in the wall at home. Or, simpler yet, they could buy cellphones that were already on. And everyone was an operator -- instead of using plugboards and directory assistance, they would use an online service to get a phone number and enter it in the keypad (or speed dial from memory). What happened? Focused research, technology evolution, investment in infrastructure, economics, policy, and psychology (among others) interacted to "shift the paradigm" to one that no longer had the looming personnel problems.

If we devoted more resources and attention to the broadly focused issues of information protection (not "cyber" -- can we put that term to rest?), we might well obviate many of the problems that now require legions of technicians. Why do we have firewalls and IDS? In large part, because the underlying software and hardware was not designed for use in an open environment, and its development is terribly buggy and poorly configured. The languages, systems, protocols, and personnel involved in the current infrastructure all need rethinking and reengineering. But so long as the powers-that-be emphasize retaining (and expanding) legacy artifacts and compatibility based on up-front expense instead of overall quality, and in training yet more people to be the "cyber operators" defending those poor choices, we are not going to make the advances necessary to move beyond them (and, to repeat, many of us have been warning about that for decades). And we are never going to have enough "professionals" to keep them safe. We are focusing on the short term and will lose the overall struggle; we need to evolve our way out of the problems, not meet them with an ever-growing band of mercenaries.

The bottom line? We should be very cautious in defining what a "professional" is in this field so that we don't institutionalize limitations and bad practices. And we should do more to broaden the scope of education for those who work in those "professions" to ensure that their focus -- and skills -- are not so limited as to miss important features that should be part of what they do. As one glaring example, think "privacy" -- how many of the "professionals" working in the field have a good grounding and concern about preserving privacy (and other civil rights) in what they do? Where is privacy even mentioned in "cybersecurity"? What else are they missing?

[If this isn't enough of my musings on education, you can read two of my ideas in a white paper I wrote in 2010. Unfortunately, although many in policy circles say they like the ideas, no one has shown any signs of acting as a champion for either.]

[3/2/2013] While at the RSA Conference, I was interviewed by the Information Security Media Group on the topic of cyber workforce. The video is available online.

A Cautionary Incident

Recently, Amazon's cloud service failed for several customers, and has not come back fully for well over 24 hours. As of the time I write this, Amazon has not commented as to what caused the problem, why it took so long to fix, or how many customers it affected.

It seems a client of Amazon was not able to contact support, and posted in a support forum under the heading "Life of our patients is at stake - I am desperately asking you to contact." The body of the message was that "We are a monitoring company and are monitoring hundreds of cardiac patients at home. We were unable to see their ECG signals"

What ensued was a back-and-forth with others incredulous that such a service would not have a defined disaster plan and alternate servers defined, with the original poster trying to defend his/her position. At the end, as the Amazon service slowly came back, the original poster seemed to back off from the original claim, which implies either an attempt to evade further scolding (and investigation), or that the original posting was a huge exaggeration to get attention. Either way, the prospect of a mission critical system depending on the service was certainly disconcerting.

Personnel from Amazon apparently never contacted the original poster, despite that company having a Premium service contract.

25 or so years ago, Brian Reid defined a distributed system as " where I can't get my work done because a computer I never heard of is down." (Since then I've seen this attributed to Leslie Lamport, but at the time heard it attributed to Reid.) It appears that "The Cloud" is simply today's buzzword for a distributed system. There have been some changes to hardware and software, but the general idea is the same — with many of the limitations and cautions attendant thereto, plus some new ones unique to it. Those who extol its benefits (viz., cost) without understanding the many risks involved (security, privacy, continuity, legal, etc.) may find themselves someday making similar postings to support fora — as well as "position wanted" sites.

The full thread is available here.

A Recent Interview, and other info

I have not been blogging here for a while because of some health and workload issues. I hope to resume regular posts before too much longer.

Recently, I was interviewed about the current state of security . I think the interview came across fairly well, and captured a good cross-section of my current thinking on this topic. So, I'm posting a link to that interview here with some encouragement for you to go read it as a substitute for me writing a blog post:

Complexity Is Killing Us: A Security State of the Union With Eugene Spafford of CERIAS

Also, let me note that our annual CERIAS Symposium will be held April 5th & 6th here at Purdue. You can register and find more information via our web site.

But that isn't all!

Plus, all of the above are available via RSS feeds.  We also have a Twitter feed: @cerias. Not all of our information goes out on the net, because some of it is restricted to our partner organizations, but eventually the majority of it makes it out to one of the above outlets.

So, although I haven't been blogging recently, there has still been a steady stream of activity from the 150+ people who make up the CERIAS "family."   

What About the Other 11 Months?

October is "officially" National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Whoopee! As I write this, only about 27 more days before everyone slips back into their cyber stupor and ignores the issues for the other 11 months.

Yes, that is not the proper way to look at it. The proper way is to look at the lack of funding for long-term research, the lack of meaningful initiatives, the continuing lack of understanding that robust security requires actually committing resources, the lack of meaningful support for education, almost no efforts to support law enforcement, and all the elements of "Security Theater" (to use Bruce Schneier's very appropriate term) put forth as action, only to realize that not much is going to happen this month, either. After all, it is "Awareness Month" rather than "Action Month."

There was a big announcement at the end of last week where Secretary Napolitano of DHS announced that DHS had new authority to hire 1000 cybersecurity experts. Wow! That immediately went on my list of things to blog about, but before I could get to it, Bob Cringely wrote almost everything that I was going to write in his blog post The Cybersecurity Myth - Cringely on technology. (NB. Similar to Bob's correspondent, I have always disliked the term "cybersecurity" that was introduced about a dozen years ago, but it has been adopted by the hoi polloi akin to "hacker" and "virus.") I've testified before the Senate about the lack of significant education programs and the illusion of "excellence" promoted by DHS and NSA -- you can read those to get my bigger picture view of the issues on personnel in this realm. But, in summary, I think Mr. Cringely has it spot on.

Am I being too cynical? I don't really think so, although I am definitely seen by many as a professional curmudgeon in the field. This is the 6th annual Awareness Month and things are worse today than when this event was started. As one indicator, consider that the funding for meaningful education and research have hardly changed. NITRD (National Information Technology Research & Development) figures show that the fiscal 2009 allocation for Cyber Security and Information Assurance (their term) was about $321 million across all Federal agencies. Two-thirds of this amount is in budgets for Defense agencies, with the largest single amount to DARPA; the majority of these funds have gone to the "D" side of the equation (development) rather than fundamental research, and some portion has undoubtedly gone to support offensive technologies rather than building safer systems. This amount has perhaps doubled since 2001, although the level of crime and abuse has risen far more -- by at least two levels of magnitude. The funding being made available is a pittance and not enough to really address the problems.

Here's another indicator. A recent conversation with someone at McAfee revealed that new pieces of deployed malware are being indexed at a rate of about 10 per second -- and those are only the ones detected and being reported! Some of the newer attacks are incredibly sophisticated, defeating two-factor authentication and falsifying bank statements in real time. The criminals are even operating a vast network of fake merchant sites designed to corrupt visitors' machines and steal financial information.   Some accounts place the annual losses in the US alone at over $100 billion per year from cyber crime activities -- well over 300 times everything being spent by the US government in R&D to stop it. (Hey, but what's 100 billion dollars, anyhow?) I have heard unpublished reports that some of the criminal gangs involved are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to write new and more effective attacks. Thus, by some estimates, the criminals are vastly outspending the US Government on R&D in this arena, and that doesn't count what other governments are spending to steal classified data and compromise infrastructure. They must be investing wisely, too: how many instances of arrests and takedowns can you recall hearing about recently?

Meanwhile, we are still awaiting the appointment of the National Cyber Cheerleader. For those keeping score, the President announced that the position was critical and he would appoint someone to that position right away. That was on May 29th. Given the delay, one wonders why the National Review was mandated as being completed in a rush 60 day period. As I noted in that earlier posting, an appointment is unlikely to make much of a difference as the position won't have real authority. Even with an appointment, there is disagreement about where the lead for cyber should be, DHS or the military. Neither really seems to take into account that this is at least as much a law enforcement problem as it is one of building better defenses. The lack of agreement means that the tenure of any appointment is likely to be controversial and contentious at worst, and largely ineffectual at best.

I could go on, but it is all rather bleak, especially when viewed through the lens of my 20+ years experience in the field.  The facts and trends have been well documented for most of that time, too, so it isn't as if this is a new development. There are some bright points, but unless the problem gets a lot more attention (and resources) than it is getting now, the future is not going to look any better.

So, here are my take-aways for National Cyber Security Awareness:

  • the government is more focused on us being "aware" than "secure"
  • the criminals are probably outspending the government in R&D
  • no one is really in charge of organizing the response, and there isn't agreement about who should
  • there aren't enough real experts, and there is little real effort to create more
  • too many people think "certification" means "expertise"
  • law enforcement in cyber is not a priority
  • real education is not a real priority

But hey, don't give up on October! It's also Vegetarian Awareness Month, National Liver Awareness Month, National Chiropractic Month, and Auto Battery Safety Month (among others). Undoubtedly there is something to celebrate without having to wait until Halloween. And that's my contribution for National Positive Attitude Month.

Still no sign of land

I am a big fan of the Monty Python troupe. Their silly take on several topics helped point out the absurd and pompous, and still do, but sometimes were simply lunatic in their own right.

One of their sketches, about a group of sailors stuck in a lifeboat came to mind as I was thinking about this post. The sketch starts (several times) with the line "Still no sign of land." The sketch then proceeds to a discussion of how they are so desperate that they may have to resort to cannibalism.

So why did that come to mind?

We still do not have a national Cyber Cheerleader in the Executive Office of the President. On May 29th, the President announced that he would appoint one – that cyber security was a national priority.

Three months later – nada.

Admittedly, there are other things going on: health care reform, a worsening insurgency problem in Afghanistan, hesitancy in the economic recovery, and yet more things going on that require attention from the White House. Still, cyber continues to be a problem area with huge issues. See some of the recent news to see that there is no shortage of problems – identity theft, cyber war questions, critical infrastructure vulnerability, supply chain issues, and more.

Rumor has it that several people have been approached for the Cheerleader position, but all have turned it down. This isn't overly surprising – the position has been set up as basically one where blame can be placed when something goes wrong rather than as a position to support real change. There is no budget authority, seniority, or leverage over Federal agencies where the problems occur, so there is no surprise that it is not wanted. Anyone qualified for a high-level position in this area should recognize what I described 20 years ago in "Spaf's First Law":

If you have responsibility for security but have no authority to set rules or punish violators, your own role in the organization is to take the blame when something big goes wrong.

I wonder how many false starts it will take before it is noticed that there is something wrong with the position if good people don't want it? And will that be enough to result in a change in the way the position is structured?

Meanwhile, we are losing good people from what senior leadership exists. Melissa Hathaway has resigned from the temporary position at the NSC from which she led the 60-day study, and Mischel Kwon has stepped down from leadership of US-CERT. Both were huge assets to the government and the public, and we have all lost as a result of their departure.

The crew of the lifeboat is dwindling. Gee, what next? Well, funny you should mention that.

Last week, I attended the "Cyber Leap Year Summit," which I have variously described to people who have asked as "An interesting chance to network" to "Two clowns short of a circus." (NB. I was there, so it was not three clowns short.)

The implied premise of the Summit, that bringing together a group of disparate academics and practitioners can somehow lead to a breakthrough is not a bad idea in itself. However, when you bring together far too many of them under a facilitation protocol that most of them have not heard of coupled with a forced schedule, it shouldn't be a surprise if the result in much other than some frustration. At least, that is what I heard from most of the participants I spoke with. It remains to be seen if the reporters from the various sections are able to glean something useful from the ideas that were so briefly discussed. (Trying to winnow "the best" idea from 40 suggestions given only 75 minutes and 40 type A personalities is not a fun time.)

There was also the question of "best" being brought together. In my session, there were people present who had no idea about basic security topics or history. Some of us made mention of well-known results or systems, and they went completely over the heads of the people present. Sometimes, they would point this out, and we lost time explaining. As the session progressed, the parties involved seemed to simply assume that if they hadn't heard about it, it couldn't be important, so they ignored the comments.

Here are three absurdities that seem particularly prominent to me about the whole event:

  1. Using "game change" as the fundamental theme is counter-productive to the issue. Referring to cyber security and privacy protection as a "game" trivializes it, and if nothing substantial occurs, it suggests that we simply haven't won the "game" yet. But in truth, these problems are something fundamental to the functioning of society, the economy, national defense, and even the rule of law. We cannot afford to "not win" this. We should not trivialize it by calling it a "game."
  2. Putting an arbitrary 60-90 day timeline on the proposed solutions exacerbates the problems. There was no interest in discussing the spectrum of solutions, but only talking about things that could be done right away. Unfortunately, this tends to result in people talking about more patches rather than looking at fundamental issues. It also means that potential solutions that require time (such as phasing in some product liability for bad software) are outside the scope of both discussion and consideration, and this continues to perpetuate the idea that quick fixes are somehow the solution.
  3. Suggesting that all that is needed is for the government to sponsor some group-think, feel-good meeting to come up with solutions is inane. Some of us have been looking at the problem set for decades, and we know some of what is needed. It will take sustained effort and some sacrifice to make a difference. Other parts of the problem are going to require sustained investigation and data gathering. There is no political will for either. Some of the approaches were even brought up in our sessions; in the one I was in, which had many economists and people from industry, the ideas were basically voted down (or derided, contrary to the protocol of the meeting) and dropped. This is part of the issue: the parties most responsible for the problem do not want to bear any responsibility for the fixes.

I raised the first two issues as the first comments in the public Q&A session on Day 1. Aneesh Chopra, the Federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and Susan Alexander, the Chief Technology Officer for Information and Identity Assurance at DoD, were on the panel to which I addressed the questions. I was basically told not to ask those kinds of questions, and to sit down. although the response was phrased somewhat less forcefully than that. Afterwards, no less than 22 people told me that they wanted to ask the same questions (I started counting after #5). Clearly, I was not alone in questioning the formulation of the meeting.

Do I seem discouraged? A bit. I had hoped that we would see a little more careful thought involved. There were many government observers present, and in private, one-on-one discussions with them, it was clear they were equally discouraged with what they were hearing, although they couldn't state that publicly.

However, this is yet another in long line of meetings and reports with which I have had involvement, where the good results are ignored, and the "captains of industry and government" have focused on the wrong things. But by holding continuing workshops like this one, at least it appears that the government is doing something. If nothing comes of it, they can blame the participants in some way for not coming up with good enough ideas rather than take responsibility for not asking the right questions or being willing to accept answers that are difficult to execute.

Too cynical? Perhaps. But I will continue to participate because this is NOT a "game," and the consequences of continuing to fail are not something we want to face — even with "...white wine sauce with shallots, mushrooms and garlic."

Other cybersecurity legislation in the U.S.

In response to my last post, several people have pointed out to me some other initiatives before Congress. Here are some brief comments on a few of them, based on what is available via the Thomas service. I am not going to provide a section-by-section analysis of any of these.

S.921, the US Information and Communications Enforcement Act of 2009

Introduced by Senator Carper and cosponsored by Senator Burris, this act would modify Title 44 (chapter 35) of the US Code to establish the National Office for Cyberspace within the Executive Office of the President (EOP). The intent is that this office would address "...assured, reliable, secure, and survivable global information and communications infrastructure and related capabilities."

There are several other provisions in the act that make agency heads responsible for security of their systems, requires annual security reviews, requires cooperation with the US-CERT, requires establishment of automated reporting, and that charges the Department of Commerce with setting guidelines and standards but allows agencies to employ more stringent standards.

The director of the office created by this bill does not have a defined reporting chain. However, the office is given explicit responsibility for coordinating policy, consulting with agencies, ad working with OMB. Note that the interaction with OMB is coordination of OMB's actions and is not a role with any direct control.

The authority of this new office would not extend to Defense or any of the DNI's agencies.

There is a very short timeline to produce some initial reports (180 days) on the effects of cost savings by using better security. It might take that long simply to begin to define what to measure!

Every Federal agency would have to appoint a CISO (Chief Information Security Officer) responsible for all the things that a CISO normally does in a large organization, including establishing monitoring and response documentation, training, purchasing, and so on. This would be a massive undertaking for some agencies, even if appropriate budget was allocated (something this bill does not do).

The bill require every agency to have an independent (external) evaluation every year! The cost and effort of such an option would be huge, and it is not clear that it would provide a return equal to cost.

Overall, there are some worthwhile ideas in here, but if passed as is, this would cripple many smaller agencies without sufficient budget, and tie up the rest in lots of red tape.   

S. 1438 Fostering a Global Response to Cyber Attacks Act

Introduced by Senator Gillibrand, this bill would state a "sense of the Senate" and require the Secretary of State to report on efforts to work with other countries on cyber security and response. Section 21 of S.778 provides better coverage of the topic.

S. 946 Critical Electric Infrastructure Protection Act

Introduced by Senator Lieberman with no cosponsors, this bill directs the Secretary of DHS (working with other agencies) to direct a study and report if federally-owned elements of the power grid have been compromised in any way. It further tasks the Federal Electric Reguatory Commission (FERC) to establish interim measures to protect those resources.

It makes the Secretary of Homeland Security responsible for on-going assessments and reporting of critical infrastructure, including the electric infrastructure. Hmmm, no mention of the Secretary of Energy here. This will probably provoke a turf battle if it gets considered at length.

H.R. 2195 by Representative Bennie Thompson and 16 cosponsors is the same bill on the House side.

H.R. 2165 by Rep. John Barrow is related somewhat, in that it designates FERC as responsible for securing the power system. It goes further, however, by giving FERC some emergency regulatory powers under Presidential directive. It also creates yet another class of restricted but unclassified information. Both of those last two points make this a troubling proposal.

H.R. 266 Cybersecurity Education and Enhancement Act of 2009

Introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, this act has two major components:

  1. It would task NSF with setting up programs, funded by & coordinated with DHS, for professional education and associated degrees in cyber security. Funding would also be given for equipment for such programs.
  2. It would establish a DHS-run Fellows program to bring state, local, tribal and private sectors officials into the DHS National Cybersecurity Division to become more familiar with the capabilities and missions there.

This would address some real needs in a reasonable way.


Clearly, there is growing interest in cyber within the government, and recognition of some of the weaknesses in procurement, training, response, standards, and information dissemination. However, not all of the bills being proposed really address the underlying problems, and some may cause new problems.   

The legislative process does not lend itself to solutions. The House and Senate deal with issues via an established committee structure, and those committee boundaries don't match cyber, which is a cross-cutting problem. Thus, it is difficult to get a bill started that mandates changes across several Federal agencies and cabinet positions, because the bill would then need to go through a bunch of committees -- and in too many cases there are members of those committees who will feel the need to rewrite the bill. This especially comes into play thinking about the future: if there will be new programs and authorities, it is generally the rule that each committee would like to "own" those activities . Likewise, the members and staff don't like to see any authority taken away from their committees.

This makes it problematic for cyber. It will require thoughtful support across a number of areas. It will require the leadership of both houses of Congress to exert some leadership to ensure that good legislation gets through, without too much unnecessary tweaking along the way.

Let's keep our fingers crossed.

(Oh, and my post about the "cyber cheerleader" caused a reader to remind of Spaf's First Law, articulated over two decades ago:

If you have responsibility for security but have no authority to set rules or punish violators, your own role in the organization is to take the blame when something big goes wrong.

Thus, people who are being approached for the position may not be eager to take it if they understand this. It has been demonstrated for this sort of position before.

Cybersecurity Legislation

Cyber seems to be one of the buzzwords in Washington these days, with the recent botnet attacks generating a lot of extra noise. This has included at least one rather bellicose response from a US Representative who either is reading much more interesting information than the rest of us, or is not reading anything at all.

Meanwhile, in the background, various bits of legislation are being worked on by several committees in both the House and Senate to address various aspects of the perceived problems. Two notable instances are legislation proposed by Senator Rockefeller and others that followed closely after my testimony before their committee. I have heard that at least one of these pieces of proposed legislation is being revised, and will be reintroduced. Back in April, I sent comments on both proposed bills to committee staff, but never heard a response. I hope my input had some impact.

It occurred to me that I did not blog about the legislation or my comments. So, to correct that oversight, you will find the enclosed, which are my original comments with some newer perspective gained over the last few months. You can find the text of these bills via Thomas.

(I will post a follow-up when I see what the revised bills are like.)

The National Cybersecurity Advisor Act of 2009, S. 778

This proposed legislation, cosponsored by Senators Snowe, Bayh and Nelson, was a bit of a puzzle to me when it was introduced. The timing was such that the President's 60-day review report had not yet been delivered, and so it seemed premature to me. However, in retrospect, the 60-day review didn't end up suggesting a powerful office within the EOP for cyber, and so this bill was right on target.

The bill would establish an office of National Cybersecurity Advisor , with the head of that office reporting directly to the President. That person would have authority to hire consultants, consult with any Federal agency, approve clearances of personnel related to cyber, and have access to all classified programs relating to cyber. More importantly, the advisor "...shall review and approve all cybersecurity-related budget requests submitted to the Office of Management and Budget" and would "...serve as the principal advisor to the President for all cybersecurity-related matters." Both of these would be an improvement over the suggestions in the final 60-day review.

The bill has had two readings and has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

(I note that the 60 day review would have been delivered to the President on April 9. It is now more than 3 months later, and still no appointment of the cybersecurity cheerleader proposed by that document.)

The National Cybersecurity Act of 2009, S 773

This was also introduced before the 60-day review was released. It contains 23 sections. It has been read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. It also is cosponsored by Snowe, Nelson and Bayh.

Sec. 1: Title And Table Of Contents.

Pro forma material.

Sec 2: Findings

This is a section devoted to bits of information that justify the bill. Several people are cited for things they have said on the topics; I was not one of them, although Purdue was mentioned in point 13, and the PITAC report I helped prepare was listed in point 14.

Sec 3: Cybersecurity Advisory Panel

This section defines the creation of a high-level, Presidential advisory panel. The panel will be composed of individuals from a broad cross-section of society, and will provide the President with advice on strategy, trends, priorities, and civil liberties related to cyber security. The panel will be required to provide a report at least once every 2 years.

This looks to be well-designed and potentially very useful. Panels such as this depend on the alacrity with which a President appoints appropriate members, whether those members actually get something useful done, and whether the President heeds their advice. But at least this framework is off to a good start.

Sec 4. Real-time Cybersecurity Dashboard

The Secretary of Commerce is mandated to develop a "real-time dashboard" within a year. This dashboard is supposed to show the cybersecurity status and vulnerability information of all networks managed by the Department of Commerce.

This is quite puzzling. It isn't clear to me why this is restricted to Commerce, although notes I have from staff indicate that the intent is to serve as a pilot for other parts of government. But that isn't the end of the puzzle. Who is supposed to view this dashboard? What do they do after they see something on it? And what the heck does it really measure? (Hopefully not a dynamic FISMA score!)

Of course, I can't help noting that having one location to collect and display vulnerability information is a very bad idea.

Sec 5. State And Regional Cybersecurity Enhancement Program

This section describes the creation of a set of centers around the country to assist small businesses with cybersecurity. It is modeled on the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) and would be run by the Department of Commerce. The centers would receive up to 1/2 of their initial funding from the Federal government, with the rest to come from states, regional groups, and fees paid by members. The centers would provide expertise and resources to small companies.

Although I have some misgivings about this, it is the best suggestion I have seen yet on how to get cybersecurity technology out to small businesses in an affordable manner. I was not familiar with this program and had suggested something similar to our agricultural extension model, so this is in keeping with that. The questions I have are whether these will attract the necessary funding and talent to be viable. But it is probably worth the experiment.

Sec 6. NIST Standards Development And Compliance

This section sets out that, within a year, the Secretary of Commerce will establish a research plan for security metrics, establish a whole set of metrics and compliance measures for vulnerabilities and testing, set all these as standards, and apply them to all vendors and government systems. This will also constrain acceptable configurations, and provide accreditation of suppliers.

Whew! This is way off base. We don't know how to do many of these things, and I fear that setting a deadline will mean that a number of poor standards and requirements will be established. Not only that, having a set of uniform configurations (and required compliance to them) is a sure way to weaken our security rather than strengthen it -- diversity and uncertainty have protective effects when used appropriately. Requiring everyone to code the same way, and configure only approved systems the same way is not going to be helpful -- except to the bad guys.

This is also a good way to kill innovation in an area (software development and security deployment) where innovation is badly needed.   

This is a bad idea.

Sec 7. Licensing And Certification Of Cybersecurity Professionals

This provision requires Commerce to develop a national licensing and certification program for cybersecurity professionals. Within 3 years, it would be unlawful to provide security services to any government or national security system without the certification.

This is worse than section 6! We don't know yet what the appropriate skills are for professionals. In fact, there are a wide range of skills, not all of which are needed by each person.

The result of this, if it gets enacted, is either that we will have a least-common denominator for skills that will get taught by a lot of training organizations that will enrich them but do nothing for the nation, or the bar will be set so high that we will have a shortage of qualified personnel. Either way, it may also stifle enhanced and unconventional training that could produce new talent.

I have been working as an educator in this field for two decades. This section presents an awful idea.

Sec 8. Review Of NTIA Domain Name Contracts

Basically requires the Advisory Panel (Sec 3) to review any contract renewal with ICANN, and gives it veto authority.

Reasonable. it doesn't address some of the problems with ICANN, but it isn't clear that Congress can do that.

Sec 9. Secure Domain Name Addressing System

Within 3 years, the Commerce Department must come up with a strategy and schedule to implement DNSSEC, and the President must require all agencies and departments to follow that plan.

Probably reasonable, and with a more realistic timetable than some of the other sections.

Sec 10. Promoting Cybersecurity Awareness

Basically, the Secretary of Commerce is charged with finding ways to increase public awareness of cybersecurity. Not a bad idea, but the real issue occurs when budgets are allocated. Commerce gets stuck with lots of unfunded mandates, and I don't see this as ranking up there with, say, maintaining the nation's atomic clocks or evaluating the next digital signature standard. So, if the budgets are cramped, this won't happen.

Sec 11. Federal Cybersecurity Research And Development

This directs NSF to provide more funding towards some specific hard research issues (assurance, attribution, insider threat, privacy protection, etc.), and to help ensure that students get some training in secure code production techniques (although that is a somewhat nebulous concept). It also authorizes significant new funding levels for research, establishment of centers, and funding traineeships.

Overall, I think the intent is good. The issue is once again one of appropriations each year to fund these initiatives. if "new" funding is available, that is great. However, if this ends up eating into other research thrusts, it is generally not good for the community as a whole.

It is also the case that when substantial blocks of money are made available, suddenly "experts" come out the woodwork to compete for it. New ideas and new blood are needed in the area, but it is almost certain that a significant part of this will not accomplish what is intended, although what is accomplished may still have value. I would hope that the NSF doesn't try to address this by tying funds to the Centers of Excellence (sic).

Sec 12. Federal Cyber Scholarship-For-Service Program

The NSF SoS program would be expanded in size and scope, and codify it in law. The Scholarship for Service program grew out of an idea I presented to Congress back in 1997. It has functioned well, although it has not attracted large numbers of students, for a variety of reasons. The expansion of the program in this draft bill doesn't really change the nature of the program, so I would be very surprised if the 1000 students per year would actually matriculate. I suppose the numbers might get pumped up if more schools participated, but we don't have the faculty or educational materials nationally to do that. Thus, I have reservations about this, too.

Sec 13. Cybersecurity Competition And Challenge

This would direct NIST to set up national competitions at different levels for cybersecurity. There is also authorization to solicit for and award prize money to winners.

I can see where this might increase interest in the field, and bring more people out to solve problems. However, the majority of challenges held in the field right now are "hacking into the opposing server" challenges, and I have contended over the years that such an approach should not be encouraged. It we are looking for employees of cyber military groups, this might be okay. But hack challenges don't really recognize the well-rounded and adept defenders and researchers. Attack challenges also don't tend to engage women, who are already badly underrepresented in the field.

So, this is another qualified "maybe" section: good intent, but a lot depends on implementation.

Sec 14. Public-Private Clearinghouse

This establishes Commerce as the home of vulnerability and threat information for government systems and critical private infrastructure. Commerce also has to come up with methods and standards for protecting and sharing this information.

  Hmmm, I thought DHS was supposed to be doing all this now?

Sec 15. Cybersecurity Risk Management Report

The President is supposed to come up with a report on the feasibility of a risk and insurance market for cyber risk. The report is also supposed to include the feasibility of including that risk in bond ratings.

I've often said that if we could get the insurance industry engaged, we might well see some progress in private sector security. However, without some liability for companies (above and beyond loss risk) it still might not be enough. This bill doesn't touch the liability issue, which is likely to be a third rail issue for any legislation.

Sec 16. Legal Framework Review And Report

This section of the bill would mandate review of existing law that touches on cyber, and require recommendations for any necessary changes. This includes the ECPA, the Privacy Act, FISMA, and others. This would be a very good idea. The review would be delivered to Congress. At that point, there is no way to predict what might happen, but a review is definitely needed.

Sec 17. Authentication And Civil Liberties Report'

Briefly mandates study of a national identification and authentication program, including the civil liberties issues associated therewith.

This is another touchy topic. There are many groups advocating for strongly authenticated ID, but there are also reasons to proceed with caution. Performing an in-depth study is probably worthwhile, but I'd prefer to see the National Academies tasked with it than an agency of government.

Sec 18. Cybersecurity Responsibilities And Authority

This would give the President authority to disconnect government or critical infrastructure systems in the event of an emergency. it would also grant authority for mapping systems, setting standards, monitoring performance, and other activities to protect and defend national-interest systems. It also allows the President to designate an agency or organization to be in charge during any cyber incident – presumably including Department of Defense agencies.

This has been controversial because of the "disconnect" provision. It isn't clear to me that there are situations that would be helped by a disconnect, although I can certainly imagine some that might be made worse by disconnection. I'm not sure that the current infrastructure would even allow disconnection! So, on balance, if it were left out I don't think it would matter, but it might make some people less nervous.

Most of the other parts of the section seem reasonable.

Sec 19. Quadrennial Cyber Review

Every four years there would need to be a review of cybersecurity posture, strategy, partnerships, threats, and so on. The Advisory Panel (Sec 3) would be involved. "The review shall include a comprehensive examination of the cyber strategy, force structure, modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, the Nation's ability to recover from a cyberemergency, and other elements of the cyber program and policies with a view toward determining and expressing the cyber strategy of the United States and establishing a revised cyber program for the next 4 years." Wow!

This is modeled after the Defense Department's review of the same name, I assume. It would be a tremendous amount of work, and might be a huge distraction. However, it also might help to highlight some of the shortfalls and dangers in a way that would be useful for policymakers.

One consideration from the DoD side: structuring reporting in this way tends to move planning from annual or biennial cycles to quadrennial or octennial cycles. In a fast-moving field such as cyber, this might well be counterproductive.

Sec 20. Joint Intelligence Threat Assessment

it states "The Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Commerce shall submit to the Congress an annual assessment of, and report on, cybersecurity threats to and vulnerabilities of critical national information, communication, and data network infrastructure."   

Well, that's reasonable. Hmm, where is DHS?

Sec 21. International Norms And Cybersecurity Deterrance Measures

The President is directed to work with foreign governments to increase engagement and cooperation in cybersecurity.   

We can hardly argue with that!

Sec 22. Federal Secure Products And Services Acquisitions Board

This would establish a board to set and review requirements for Federal acquisitions to ensure that cybersecurity standards are met.

My comments on section 6 hold here as well.

Sec 23. Definitions

Assorted definitions to interpret other parts of the bill.


S. 778 seems like a reasonable idea, although it isn't clear that enough responsibility is given to the position. Merging with S773 might be reasonable with many of the tasks in S.773 currently delegated to the President instead delegated to the new position.

S.773 is best where it encourages new development. reporting, education and response. Unfortunately, some of the restrictions and mandates, especially Sections 6 and 7, make the bill more toxic than helpful.

The new funding required to carry everything out would be in the many hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Most of that is explicitly authorized in this legislation, but corresponding appropriation is not a certainty...and given the current economic climate, it is unlikely. Thus, there are some things contained in here that would end up as unfunded mandates on a few agencies (such as NIST) that are already laboring under a huge taskload with insufficient resources.

No mention is made of bolstering law enforcement at any level to help deal with cybersecurity issues. That is unfortunate, because it is one place where some immediate impact could definitely be made. However, given the way this will wend through committees, that is not unexpected. Commerce gets the bill first, so they get the direction.

DHS isn't mentioned anywhere. Again, that may be because of the path the bill will take through committees. However, I can't help but think it also has to do with the way that DHS has screwed up in this whole arena.

Overall, this bill evidences a great deal of careful thought and deep concern. There are many great ideas in here, as well as a few flawed ones. I have my fingers crossed that the rumored revision addresses the flaws and results in something that can get passed into law. Even a pared-down law consisting of sections 3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16 and 21 would have a lot of positive impact.

A Cynic’s Take on Cyber Czars and 60-day Reports

Today, and Before

On July 17, 2008, (then) Senator Barack Obama held a town hall meeting on national security at Purdue University. He and his panel covered issues of nuclear, biological and cyber security. (I blogged about the event here and here.) As part of his remarks at the event, Senator Obama stated:

Every American depends — directly or indirectly — on our system of information networks. They are increasingly the backbone of our economy and our infrastructure; our national security and our personal well-being. But it's no secret that terrorists could use our computer networks to deal us a crippling blow. We know that cyber-espionage and common crime is already on the rise. And yet while countries like China have been quick to recognize this change, for the last eight years we have been dragging our feet.

As President, I'll make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century. I'll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who will report directly to me. We'll coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information — from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives.

That was a pretty exciting statement to hear!

On February 9, 2009, (now) President Obama appointed Melissa Hathaway as Acting Senior Director for Cyberspace and charged her with performing a comprehensive review of national cyberspace security in 60 days. I interacted with Ms. Hathaway and members of her team during those 60 days (as well as before and after). From my point of view, it was a top-notch team of professionals approaching the review with a great deal of existing expertise and open minds. I saw them make a sincere effort to reach out to every possible community for input.

If you're keeping count, the report was delivered on or about April 10. Then, mostly silence to those of us on the outside. Several rumors were circulated in blogs and news articles, and there was a presentation at the RSA conference that didn't really say much.

Until today: May 29th.

Shortly after 11am EDT, President Obama gave some prepared remarks and his office released the report. In keeping with his July 2008 statement, the President did declare that "our digital infrastructure -- the networks and computers we depend on every day -- will be treated as they should be: as a strategic national asset." However, he did not appoint someone as a National Cyber Advisor. Instead, he announced the position of a "Cybersecurity Coordinator" that will be at a lower level in the Executive Office of the White House. No appointment to that position was announced today, either. (I have heard rumor from several sources that a few high-profile candidates have turned down offers of the position already. Those are only rumors, however.)

The President outlined the general responsibilities and duties of this new position. It apparently will be within the National Security Staff, reporting to the NSC, but also reporting to OMB and the National Economic Council, and working with the Federal CIO, CTO and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The new Coordinator will be charged with

  1. helping develop (yet another) strategy to secure cyberspace. This will include metrics and performance milestones;
  2. coordinating with state and local governments, and with the private sector, "to ensure an organized and unified response to future cyber incidents."
  3. to strengthen ties with the private sector, with an explicit mandate to not set security standards for industry.
  4. to continue to invest in cyber (although the examples he gave were not about research or security
  5. to begin a national campaign to increase awareness and cyber literacy.

The President also made it clear that privacy was important, and that monitoring of private networks would not occur.

Reading Between the Lines

There were a number of things that weren't stated that are also interesting, as well as understanding implications of what was stated.

First of all, the new position is rather like a glorified cheerleader: there is no authority for budget or policy, and the seniority is such that it may be difficult to get the attention of cabinet secretaries, agency heads and CEOs. The position reports to several entities, presumably with veto power (more on that below). Although the President said the appointee will have "regular access" to him, that is not the same as an advisor -- and this is a difference that can mean a lot in Washington circles. Although it is rumor that several high-profile people have already turned down the position, I am not surprised given this circumstance. (And this may be why it has been two months since the report was delivered before this event — they've been trying to find someone to take the job.)

The last time someone was in a role like this with no real authority -- was in 2001 when Howard Schmidt was special adviser for cyberspace security to President G.W.Bush. Howard didn't stay very long, probably because he wasn't able to accomplish anything meaningful beyond coordinating (another) National Plan to Secure Cyberspace. It was a waste of his time and talents. Of course, this President knows the difference between "phishing" and "fission" and has actually used email, but still...

Second, the position reports to the National Economic Council and OMB. If we look back at our problems in cyber security (and I have blogged about them extensively over the last few years, and spoken about them for two decades), many of them are traceable to false economies: management deciding that short-term cost savings were more important than protecting against long-term risk. Given the current stress in the economy I don't expect any meaningful actions to be put forth that cost anything; we will still have the mindset that "cheapest must be best."

Third, there was no mention of new resources. In particular, no new resources for educational initiatives or research. We can pump billions of dollars into the bank accounts of greedy financiers on Wall Street, but no significant money is available for cyber security and defense. No surprise, really, but it is important to note the "follow the money" line -- the NEC has veto power over this position, and no money is available for new initiatives outside their experience.

Fourth, there was absolutely no mention made of bolstering our law enforcement community efforts. We already have laws in place and mechanisms that could be deployed if we simply had the resources and will to deploy them. No mention was made at all about anything active such as this -- all the focus was on defensive measures. Similarly, there was no mention of national-level responses to some of the havens of cyber criminals, nor of the pending changes in the Department of Defense that are being planned.

Fifth, the President stated "Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not -- I repeat, will not include -- monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic." I suspect that was more than intended to reassure the privacy advocates -- I believe it was "code" for "We will not put the NSA in charge of domestic cyber security." Maybe I'm trying to read too much into it, but this has been a touchy issue in many different communities over the last few months.

There are certainly other things that might be noted about the report, but we should also note some positive aspects: the declaration that cyber is indeed a strategic national asset, that the problems are large and growing, that the existing structures don't work, that privacy is important, and that education is crucial to making the most of cyber going forward.

Of course, Congress ("pro is to con as Progress is to Congress") is an important player in all this, and can either help define a better or solution or stand in the way of what needs to be done. Thus, naming a Cyberspace Coordinator is hardly the last word on what might happen.

But with the perspective I have, I find it difficult to get too excited about the overall announcement. We shall see what actually happens.

The Report

I've read the report through twice, and read some news articles commenting on it. These comments are "off the top" and not necessarily how I'll view all this in a week or two. But what's the role of blogging if I need to think about it for a month, first? cheese

It is important to note that the President's remarks were not the same as the report, although its issuance was certainly endorsed by the White House. The reason I note the difference is that the report identifies many problems that the President's statement does not address (in any way), and includes many "should"s that cannot be addressed by a "coordinator" who has no budget or policy authority.

What is both interesting and sad is how much the new report resembles the largely-inconsequential National Plan to Secure Cyberspace issued under the Bush Administration (be sure to see the article at the link). That isn't a slam on this report -- as I wrote earlier, I think it is a good effort by a talented and dedicated team. What I mean to imply is that the earlier National Plan had some strong points too, but nothing came of it because of cost and prioritization and lack of authority.

There are a number of excellent points made in this report: the international aspects, the possibility of increased liability for poor security products and pratices, the need for involvement of the private sector and local governments, the need for more education, the problems of privacy with security, and more.

I was struck by a few things missing from the report.

First, there was no mention of the need for more long-term, less applied research and resources to support it. This is a critical issue, as I have described here before and has been documented time and again. To its credit, the report does mention a need for better technology transfer, although this is hardly the first time that has been observed; the 2005 PITAC report "Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization" included all of this (and also had minimal impact).

The report had almost nothing to say about increasing resources and support for law enforcement and prosecution. This continues to puzzle me, as we have laws in place and systems that could make an impact if we only made it a priority.

There is no discussion about why some previous attempts and structures -- notably DHS -- have failed to make any meaningful progress, and sometimes have actually hindered better cyber security. Maybe that would be expecting too much in this report (trying not to point fingers), but one can't help but wonder. Perhaps it is simply enough to note that no recommendations are made to locate any of the cyber responsibilities in DHS.

There is some discussion of harmonizing regulations, but nothing really about reviewing the crazy-quilt laws we have covering security, privacy and response. There is one sentence in the report that suggests that seeking new legislation could make things worse, and that is true but odd to see.

As an aside, I bet the discussion about thinking about liability changes for poor security practices and products -- a very reasonable suggestion -- caused a few of the economic advisors to achieve low Earth orbit. That may have been enough to set off the chain of events leading to reporting to the NEC, actually. However, it is a legitimate issue to raise, and one that works in other markets. Some of us have been suggesting for decades that it be considered, yet everyone in business wants to be held blameless for their bad decisions. Look at what has played out with the financial meltdown and TARP and you'll see the same: The businessmen and economists can destroy the country, but shouldn't be held at fault. mad

There is discussion of the supply-chain issue but the proposed solution is basically to ensure US leadership in production -- a laudable goal, but not achievable given the current global economy. We're going to need to change some of our purchasing and vetting habits to really achieve more trustworthy systems — but that won't go over with the economists, either.

There is no good discussion about defining roles among law enforcement, the military, the intelligence community, and private industry in responding to the problems. Yes, that is a snake pit and will take more than this report to describe, but the depth of the challenges could have been conveyed.

As David Wagner noted in email to an USACM committee, there is no prioritization given to help a reader understand which items are critical, which items are important, and which are merely desirable. We do not have the resources to tackle all the problems first, and there is no guidance here on how to proceed.


I didn't intend for this to be a long, critical post about the report and the announcement. I think that this topic is receiving Presidential attention is great. The report is really a good summary of the state of cybersecurity and needs, produced by some talented and dedicated Federal employees. However, the cynic in me fears that it will go the way of all the other fine reports -- many of which I contributed to -- including the PITAC report and the various CSTB reports; that is, it will make a small splash and then fade into the background as other issues come to the fore.

Basically, I think the President had the right intentions when all this started, but the realpolitik of the White House and current events have watered them down, resulting in action that basically endorses only a slight change from the status quo.

I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. But experience has shown that it is almost impossible to be too cynical in this area. In a year or so we can look back at this and we'll all know. But what we heard today certainly isn't what Candidate Obama promised last July.

(And as I noted in a previous post, Demotivators seem to capture so much of this space. Here's one that almost fits.)

This time, the Senate

On March 19, I had an opportunity to testify before the Senate Committee on on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The hearing was entitled Cybersecurity -- Assessing Our Vulnerabilities and Developing An Effective Defense.

I was asked to include information on research problems, educational initiatives, and issues regarding the current state of cyber security in the nation.   As is usual for such things, the time between the invitation and the due date for written testimony was short. Thus, I didn't have the time to delve deeply into the topic areas, but could only address the things that I already had on hand -- including some posts from this blog that I had written before. The result was a little longer than the other statements, but I think I covered more ground.

One hint for people testifying before Congress on such things: you can't depend on how long you will have for spoken remarks, so be sure any points you want to make are in your written testimony. In this case, the hearing was limited to about 75 minutes because there were several votes scheduled on the Senate floor, and the committee needed to adjourn to allow the Senators to attend the votes. And, as is common for too many hearings, there weren't many of the committee members present; I believe the hearing began with only two of the 25 members present, and some movement of members in and out to reach a maximum of four seated at any one time. In this case, the chair (Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia) apologized to us several times for the low turnout. However, many (all?) of the staff and aides were present, so I'm certain the gist of the testimony presented will be considered.Spaf testifying

The Senator made a nice introductory statement.

My written testimony is available on my website as well as the committee site. My oral statement was from rough notes that I modified on the fly as I listened to the other testimony (by Jim Lewis, Eric Weiss and Ed Amoroso). That statement, and the whole hearing, are available via the archived hearing webcast (my remarks start at about 46:30 into the webcast). If I get a transcribed version of those remarks, I will post them along with my written testimony on my website in the "US government" section.

Comments by the other speakers were good overall and I think we collectively covered a lot of ground. The questions from the Senators present indicated that they were listening and knew some of the problems in the area. The comments from Senator Nelson about the intrusions into his systems were surprising: several Senate security staff were present at the hearing and indicated to me that his remarks were the first they had heard of the incidents! So, the hearing apparently set off an incident-response exercise -- separate from responding to my presence in the building, that is. grin

Will this hearing make a difference? I don't know. I've been testifying and saying the same things for over a dozen years (this was my 8th Congressional hearing testimony) and things haven't gotten that much better...and may even be worse. Senator Rockefeller has indicated he intends to introduce legislation supporting more funding for students studying cyber security issues. There was some good news coverage of all this (e.g., FCW and CNet).

I am told that there will be more hearings by this committee. Some House committees have been holding hearings too, and the President's 60 day review continues apace. The added attention is great, but with the sudden interest by so many, the result may be more confusion rather than resolution.

Stay tuned.

As a reminder, if you want to know about my occasional postings such as this but don't want to subscribe to the RSS feed,  you can subscribe to the mailing list.

Also as a reminder, there is my tumble blog on security issues, with links to items on the news and WWW of possible interest to those who find my ramblings and rants of interest.